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CvT: US-China Competition Takes a New Arena in Myanmar

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A Burmese exercise video went viral in February as it captured the military’s armored vehicles moving towards Myanmar’s parliament to overthrow the government. The military, also known as the Tatmadaw, claimed that the November 2020 national elections were flawed after Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, National League for Democracy (NLD), won the majority. In response, the Tatmadaw detained Suu Kyi, placed leaders from the NLD and others under house arrest, and placed Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in charge of the one-year state of emergency. Protests then swept across Myanmar, and the Tatmadaw retaliated forcefully. By 24 June, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), an advocacy group based in Thailand, recorded that 5,104 people have been arrested, charged, or sentenced, and 880 have been killed by the junta. In addition to the violence, the economy has been battered by international sanctions and general nationwide strikes.

The February 1 coup follows a history of military rule and ethnic violence in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. The Southeast Asian country previously held the international community’s attention due to the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority in Rakhine State. The other states of Myanmar are not strangers to ethnic violence; the Council for Foreign Relations reports that there are over 20 ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) as well as smaller militias throughout the country. In response to the coup, civilians have formed militias, and some receive training from various EAOs.

As the instability and violence continue, experts warn that Myanmar is moving towards state failure and civil war. On April 24, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held a meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia with General Min Aung. Despite being criticized for the absence of elected members of Parliament that were not detained and the recognition of General Min Aung as the leader of Myanmar, the meeting still produced a Five-Point Consensus that called for a cease in violence against protestors and the establishment of a mediated, “constructive” dialogue among the parties.

Diverging interests drive different responses

China and the United States had conflicting interests in Myanmar as it moved from military control to an elected democracy, and opposition grew following the persecution of the Rohingya minority in Rakhine State. The world watched in 2017 as hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh – camps that have grown to be the largest in the world as the crisis has raged on over the past 6 years. China, along with Bangladesh and Myanmar, encourages repatriation of the refugees to Rakhine State despite the ongoing violence. The United States, on the other hand, imposed sanctions on Nay Pyi Taw over human rights abuses. The two superpowers remain prominent actors in response to Myanmar’s more recent crisis.

As Myanmar’s closest ally and largest trading partner, China holds a great deal of influence over, and investment in, the outcomes of the coup. China is invested in its southern neighbor as it is a member of the Belt and Road Initiative, a multilateral economic and infrastructure initiative that aims to further extend China’s influence in the global economy. Myanmar is also the largest exporter of rare-earths metals to China and hosts vulnerable supply chains in an industry with growing strategic importance. Additionally, Myanmar connects China’s Yunnan Province to the Indian Ocean through the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, which could potentially expose China to the instability of the violence on its border as the Tatmadaw fights in Kachin and Shan States.

Despite its relationship with the NLD, China does not want to encourage international involvement. Beijing’s immediate response to the coup was to prevent the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) from condemning the event while it has sidestepped requests by ASEAN to help carry out the Five-Point Consensus. China’s resolve will be tested as Myanmar’s economy continues to weaken, vulnerable supply chains are threatened, and instability rises in the border states.

By contrast, the United States has pushed for the military to refrain from violence and reverse its actions. US policymakers have imposed sanctions, passed an act to allow Burmese nationals and former residents living in the United States to apply for protected status, and encouraged allies across the globe to strengthen pressure on the Tatmadaw. However, while economic sanctions have struck a blow to the military and largely isolated the nation’s economy, they alone have not been enough to ameliorate the conflict.

An internal problem to an international crisis

Over the past three and a half months, the coup has progressed from an internal political problem, to an economic issue, and finally to a human rights crisis. Civilians in Myanmar continue to raise the three-fingered salute in protest as they fight against the junta while the Tatmadaw responds with brutal force and fights EAOs in Karen, Kayah, Shan, Chin, and Kachin States.

In May, over 200 global groups called for the UNSC to adopt an arms embargo. As permanent members of the UNSC, the United States and China have the power to veto any movement, and as such, the Security Council has been divided between imposing sanctions or continuing dialogue. The United Kingdom, the “penholder” on Myanmar, is hesitant to push for further negotiations as it anticipates a lack of consensus from China, Russia, and other interested states.

China and the United States are invested in the stability of Myanmar, albeit for different reasons. China has economic interests in its southern neighbor and has benefitted from the growth of the NLD. Its opposition to external influence, however, prevents it from allowing the UNSC to condemn the Tatmadaw and take definitive action in opposition to the coup. The United States, on the other hand, continues to use its economic power to impose sanctions while calling for further action from the international community. Moving forward, Beijing may have to weigh its opposition to international intervention against stability in its southern neighbor. Meanwhile, Washington shows signs that it will continue to push for an end to the violence against civilians.

While ASEAN has held meetings with the military regime, the international community is unsatisfied with the Five-Point Consensus. The crisis in Myanmar, which will only worsen as the economy crumbles and COVID-19 continues to spread, is another test for Washington’s level of involvement in foreign violent conflicts. US policymakers have levied sanctions and encouraged others to follow suit, but it is uncertain if that will be enough to sway the Tatmadaw’s resolve. Meanwhile, the UNSC remains at a stalemate as China vetoes negotiations and coercive actions that the United Kingdom, supported by the US, puts forward. As the world watches human rights abuses in Myanmar continue to escalate, it is clear that US-China competition has taken to a new arena over a battle in which there are no winners.

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